Gina Garcia, a 22-year-old CSUN senior with dazzling grades and a beguiling smile, makes no excuses: She’ll spend two months after graduation in Ecuador, studying Spanish and exploring, without worrying about the job trail growing cold.

“My parents asked me why I was going to South America,” Garcia said. “They thought I was crazy, but I told them I’d get a job when I get back. I’m very confident. With a business degree, you can do anything.”

She might. The Simi Valley native is poised to leave Cal State Northridge’s business school in June with a 3.94 grade-point average, solid corporate experience and a pack of companies courting her. Last week, she won CSUN’s 2000 Outstanding Graduating Senior Award.

Yet, Garcia isn’t your typical go-getter. She walks from class to class with her nose planted in a book and an earring in her tongue. While her classmates hoist cell phones, she carries a purple Winnie the Pooh lunch box filled with carrots and snacks.

Despite some early job offers, she’s not sure whether she’s cut out for the corporate culture and may try teaching or opening a fashion-oriented “groovy store” that caters to young people.

Next month, she and about 1,000 classmates from CSUN’s College of Business Administration and Economics will get their diplomas. Then they will plunge into a galloping, technology-fueled economy that was unthinkable 10 years ago, let alone five.

“The job market is better than it’s ever been,” said Adele Scheele, director of CSUN’s career center. “The companies who in the past 10 years fired whole staffs, merged and then cleansed themselves to save their stockholders are desperate for new workers, desperate for young people who know technology. The pendulum has swung” toward the students.

At CSUN’s business school, that movement has brought a stable enrollment base and synergy, said Dean William R. Hosek. The school’s forte has long been training accountants who were then gobbled up by big financial services firms, but the base is widening today. There’s a business law curriculum, a wildly popular manager of information systems emphasis, new partnerships with local industries and a bulging list of CSUN alumni at Southern California’s nameplate companies.

“They’ve made great strides from the days [the school] used to be known as the San Fernando college,” said Saul Gomez, a manager at the nonprofit Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley. “It’s not a stepchild anymore,” compared with USC, UCLA and Pepperdine University.

CSUN is a four-year institution with roughly 27,000 students, one of the largest campuses in the state system. It was wrenched financially by government budget cuts of the early 1990s and then physically by the January 1994 Northridge earthquake.

One out of every four CSUN students is a business major. Increasingly, undergraduates are community college transfers from low-income backgrounds who bring a hard-nosed work ethic and job experience to the classroom, Hosek said. He predicted that nearly half the seniors will be “readily sopped up” by financial services companies.

“The feedback we get from employers is that our graduates are ready to work and start being productive from Day 1,” Hosek said. “They know it’s not a soft life.”

Garcia, whose father works for a moving company, understood that as a freshman. High grades weren’t enough to make her stand out, so she joined the campus Latino Business Assn. and became an officer. By her junior year, she was the group’s academic coordinator, organizing resume workshops and bringing in corporate recruiters to lecture on job-hunting skills.

Just as important, she went through a CSUN program connecting African American and Latino business and engineering students with internships. It led to the first of three paid summer internships for Garcia with global toy maker Mattel Corp. in El Segundo.

She didn’t make coffee. She helped to finalize new doll prototypes, “Body Art Barbie” and “Beyond Pink Barbie” among them.

“Our job was to execute the order until production,” said Garcia, a fifth-year senior who is also considering a master’s degree in business administration. “We had to fall within our costs, hit our margins. Via e-mail, I’d deal with the plants in Malaysia and Hong Kong. It was very cool.”

Garcia said she’s so busy with school and work–she’s also a resident advisor in one of the dorms–she barely has time for leisure pursuits like hip-hop dancing and e-mailing her friends.

She’s already interviewed with a national rental car agency, a leading toy retailer, a soda conglomerate and a small Internet public relations firm. Two other corporations have called her, and she doesn’t exclude a possible future with Mattel.

 Her hardest class was economics–so she took two more courses in the subject. She spent almost every Sunday studying, from midmorning to past midnight. That dedication, plus the success that followed, drew resentment from some peers, but Garcia said she doesn’t care.

She’d rather sell an idea or a product than herself. The concept that, “you need to know your target market better than you know your own name,” was one of the golden precepts she learned at CSUN

She hopes there’s a $40,000 starting salary behind her name too. It’s not an unrealistic goal. For years, many college graduates had to beg for the entry-level positions. But the economy has grown so quickly and steadily that there is a perpetual labor shortage, university officials say.

That, combined with an explosion of dot-com and entertainment-related businesses–especially in the Valley–has driven up the value of a college diploma. Some recent business school graduates have commanded $40,000 to $50,000 beginning salaries, plus thousands of dollars in signing bonuses and stock options, said Scheele, the career center director.

On the other hand, some firms eager to fill positions in a competitive market now routinely tempt the top juniors and seniors to leave school early by offering larger paychecks. Understandably, CSUN officials aren’t thrilled about that trend.

For all the get-rich stories, they warn, there are no guarantees. Jobs are more volatile now. People switch firms, even professions, after only a few years. Sometimes, it’s impossible just to keep talented faculty members from being lured into the same sizzling job pool as their students, Hosek said.

Prospects have brightened, he added. “But there is a pressure to be successful faster now. If you’re 25 and not pulling down a six-figure income, there’s a perception there must be something wrong with you. Sometimes, I’m a little appalled at the focus on money.”

In the business school courtyard, Hosek said, it’s not uncommon to see students on their cell phones making day-trades between classes.

Don’t expect to see Garcia there. She’ll be getting ready for Ecuador and then a chance to show what she’s learned.